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Open Hearts

In 1995, Von Trier co-founded the cinema of Dogme 95, a collective of Danish filmmakers who agreed to make films that adhere to an anti-esthetic style which eschews artificial lighting, props, and requires sound to be recorded along with the images, as well as handheld cameras and location shooting. The Dogme 95 style was designed to free directors from the constraints of conventional filmmaking. What the films lack in polish they more than make up for in spontaneity, intimacy and realism. These films all have a documentary feel to them, as if the camera is eavesdropping on unsuspecting subjects.

The latest such film is the brilliant Danish import, “Open Hearts,” directed by Susanne Bier. The story is so riveting, and the acting so convincing, that I did not want the movie to end. I could have easily watched it for another hour. “Open Hearts” explores what happens to families when a catastrophe strikes. Cecelie and Joachim (Sonja Richter and Nikolaj Lie Kaas) are engaged to be married but their lives are changed forever when Joachim is hit by a car and paralyzed. The car’s driver, Marie and her husband Niels (Paprika Steen and Mads Mikkelson) are caught in the backlash. Marie urges Niels, a doctor at the hospital Joachim has been taken, to help counsel Cecelie. Joachim is very angry at his fate and shuts Cecilie out of his life, and she turns to Niels.

What makes the movie so compelling is the first-rate screenplay (by Anders Thomas Jensen), expert direction and superb acting. Sonja Richter, in a stunning screen debut, is exceptional as the fragile, despondent, fiery, and sexy blonde Cecilie. Marie, a formerly happily married woman, senses her man slipping away and does everything she can to try to hold onto him. Joachim slowly realizes that he misses Cecelie and calls her. And Niels gets sucked into Cecelie’s world and becomes obsessed with her. Finally, there is Stine, Marie and Niels’s daughter, a brash, angry teenager, who suspects her father’s affair. The film shows how ill equipped people often are to deal with tragedies. Fate deals each of the principals a devastating blow and they each deal with it differently.

The story unfolds with much honesty and feeling. Love takes several twists and turns and pulls the viewer deeper with each revelation. “Open Hearts” is emotionally raw and the pain of the characters is realistically portrayed, almost palpable, especially as the wife misses the touch of her husband. The dialogue is direct and often witty although the subject matter is very serious. Bier shows a comic touch that strengthens the story. She also uses jump cuts to accentuate the handheld camera and mixes in some extremely grainy close-ups to great effect. They give the film added texture and intimacy.

Like Von Trier’s powerful “Breaking the Waves” (1996), “Open Hearts” deals with a paralyzing accident on a young couple in love. In “Breaking the Waves” though, the paralyzed man encourages the woman (Emily Watson, in an unforgettable, Oscar-nominated debut performance) to have sex and tell him about it. In “Open Hearts,” when one of the nurses tells Joachim his fiance may be involved with another man, he takes steps to bring her back into his life.

This leads to the conclusion of the story, which offers no easy resolutions. Much is left up in the air. For me, the ambiguity of the ending made it more realistic and more resonant. I really felt like I knew these people and went through a lot with them. “Open Hearts,” in my opinion, is the first must-see film of 2003.

Rating: A
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Amen

This is the true story of a German SS officer and chemist Kurt Gerstein (Ulrich Tukor), who learns the Zyklon B pellets he developed to purify the soldiers’ drinking water is being used to gas Jews in the concentration camps. Gerstein is taken to a camp and is horrified by what he witnesses. (The officers are seen looking through peepholes to the gas chamber). After that, Gerstein unsuccessfully tries to alert the Allies but is ignored. The only one who believes him is an Italian Priest, Riccardo Fontana (French actor-director Matthieu Kassovitz, whose Hungarian Jewish grandparents survived the holocaust). Together they lead a crusade against the concentration camps, and try to inform the Pope of the atrocities.

Costa-Gavras’ intelligent, complex film, is told from the point of view of the Germans, in contrast to Roman Polanski’s remarkable “The Pianist,” which is from the victim’s viewpoint. “Amen” was adapted by the director and co-writer Jean-Claude Grumberg, from a play about Gerstein called “The Deputy”. Costa-Gavras made the film in English using German actors whose accents are often hard to understand. In addition, there is a lot of background noise making the dialogue even harder to hear. (Hopefully there will be a DVD released. This will make the dialogue easier to understand since the subtitles can be turned on.) The film assumes you know a lot of World War II history and, because of this, can be hard to follow for younger viewers. I think the use of a timeline, which was effective in “The Pianist,” would make the film more coherent. Still, “Amen” nicely builds tension towards its climax.

“Amen” is artfully crafted and uses subtle visuals to convey important ideas. Trains are shown criss-crossing the countryside throughout the film. Cars with the doors closed convey trains going into the camps full of people and cars with the doors open are the empty trains coming back from the camps. To show the passage of time and the war moving towards its conclusion, the number of Gerstein’s children are seen increasing from one (with his wife pregnant) to four by the end of the film. The burning of the Jews in the crematoriums is briefly shown in a smokestack blowing black smoke out its chimney. One of my favorite shots in “Amen” is the reflection of fires from the Nazis’ burning of mass graves in the passenger window of the car driving Gerstein away from the camps. These are all chilling images which stood out in my mind long after the film ended.

Costa-Gavras, like Polanski, is not interested in sentimentality. “Amen” is a metaphor for what he sees as crimes of indifference to all atrocities past, future, and present. He views that indifference as a form of complicity. This film depicts the Church as mostly involved in its own self-preservation. In an early scene, the German Catholic Church publicly criticizes the euthanasia of unproductive citizens, after a group of retarded children are gassed. Their protests brought this practice to a halt. But these people were Catholics and that is why the Church spoke out. However, the church turns a deaf ear to Gerstein’s and Father Riccardo’s pleas to help put a stop to the extermination of Jews. Gerstein provides documents and maps detailing the mass executions but is unsuccessful at convincing anyone to try and stop the atrocities. Anyone who listens to Gerstein rebuffs his claim that 10,000 Jews a day were being killed. One of the forms of denial depicted in “Amen” was disputing of the scope of the killings. One character tells Gerstein he should say a few hundred a day are being killed if he wants to be believed. When Father Riccardo is finally able to speak to the Pope and tell him of the situation at the camps, the Pope only says he will pray for them. Father Riccardo is assured by the Vatican that the Pope will speak out in his Christmas Mass but the speech was bland and vague.

A bit of background on the Vatican’s quandary is helpful here. The Pope hated Hitler and the Nazis, but he hated Communists in Stalinist Russia even more. Their rationale for not opposing Hitler more was that Hitler was fighting Stalin. In addition, the Pope feared the Nazis attacking them if they denounced Hitler. To complicate matters further, Italy was an ally of Nazi Germany in World War II until Mussolini’s Fascist government fell in 1943.

While Gerstein was a real person, Father Riccardo was a composite of the priests who protested against the Holocaust. Another character was created for the film, “The Doctor,” a cynical, cruel senior SS officer who recruits Gerstein to help streamline the process of the exterminations. He is a doctor serving death. Gerstein is reluctant to help him and tries to slow down the death camp killings. “The Doctor” and Father Riccardo meet in one of the final scenes of “Amen.” The film’s ironic title comes from their meeting. “The Doctor” tells Father Riccardo:

“The Church has shown that purification can be achieved by burning people. Nazism is just doing the same thing but on a bigger scale. In a way we are the new chosen people.” “Amen,” Father Riccardo replies solemnly.

To Costa-Gavras and co-screenwriter Grumberg, “Amen” is a film about history. The director said history is “a bitter and painful irony, of course. Because this irony exists within history itself. Take the rescue of the Nazis by the Roman networks…Some of these people were taken in by the United States, others by the USSR. They sold their know-how and had careers. Klaus Barbie held an official position for years, in Latin America. It’s the recycling and use of their know-how.”

“Amen” requires an attentive viewer because of the subtle way the story is told. Costa-Gavras’ intellectual approach to this emotional subject does not make for Hollywood-type melodrama, although the film is noteworthy from a historical and moral perspective. Gerstein and Father Riccardo were two conscientious people who fought against injustice in the face of overwhelming indifference and opposition. “Amen” will be particularly relevant to those with an interest, either directly or indirectly, in the holocaust, and should attract its share of general audiences.

For more information on Kurt Gerstein go to this site.

Rating: B+
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Divine Intervention

The film opens with a surreal Bunuelian scene of Santa Claus climbing up a hill overlooking Nazareth and being chased by some kids; once he gets to the top he is revealed to have a cleaver in his chest. Cut to a man driving down the street, waving to neighbors and cursing them to himself. Thus the tone for this absurdist take on oppressed people is set.

There is very little plot in this personal film which is about a man called E.S., played by Suleiman with a comic grace that reminded me of Italian auteur Nanni Moretti, his father, and E.S.’s lover, known only as “the Woman” (the stunningly beautiful journalist Manal Khader, making her film debut). E.S. is trying to hold together his relationship and help take care of his father (the foul-mouthed driver of the aforementioned scene) who falls ill during the film. E.S. lives in Jerusalem and his lover in Ramallah; they are not allowed to visit each other because her movements are restricted. So they meet at the army checkpoint, park their cars alongside each other, and silently stroke each others’ hands in a series of meetings throughout the film.

E.S. does not say a word in the entire film (and neither does his lover), but his eyes and face reveal the wry humor and sadness of his character. In fact, there is little dialogue in “Divine Intervention,” which is subtitled “a chronicle of love and pain.” Though slowly paced, the film is never boring, and at 89 minutes it is just the right length. I found it both very funny and moving. “Divine Intervention” is essentially a series of tableaux with recurring scenes of deadpan humor such as a man waiting for a bus that never arrives. The owner of the home next to the bus stop keeps coming out to tell him that there is no bus, yet he still waits there. Finally, he says he knows there is no bus. The Israeli army is lampooned in a series of scenes at their checkpoint. In a wonderfully satirical computer-generated scene, a balloon with Yassir Arafat’s cartoon likeness imprinted on it floats by the checkpoint and the soldiers debate about whether to shoot it down or ask their commanders for advice. The balloon then continues its ascent high over the Jerusalem landscape. Other outrageous highlights include: a tank getting blown up by an apricot pit; target-shooting soldiers breaking out into a Godardian dance routine as they shoot at female Arab targets in traditional (keffiyah) dress; and finally a keffiyah-clad Ninja (Ms. Khader) battling Israeli shooters in a spectacular digital-fantasy sequence.

I especially liked the way Suleiman establishes his scenes in long takes, overhead shots, and landscapes of the crowded hilly landscape, and the way he observes the events with a detached style of shooting. Unlike many Hollywood films that refuse to leave a shot onscreen for more than a few seconds, Suleiman’s well-framed, lengthy shots allow his characters to move in and out of his still picture, a naturalist approach that is quite effective here. His minimalist style has much in common with Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki, whose wry, deadpan technique is perfectly realized in his new film, “The Man Without A Past,” (to be released in April 2003) and Jim Jarmusch’s superb “Stranger Than Paradise” (1984). In fact, the soundtrack includes Screaming Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell on You,” (performed here by Natasha Atlas) which was featured in “Stranger Than Paradise.”

This is the 42-year-old filmmaker’s second film and it won the Special Jury Prize as well as a critics prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year. His first film, “Chronicle of A Disappearance,” (1996) about day-to-day life among the Palestinian middle classes living in Israel, won the Best First Film award at the Venice Film Festival.

“Divine Intervention” alternates quiet, meditative scenes with outrageously sardonic ones. I found its unconventional, non-linear narrative complimentary to the alternately comic and sad tone of his film. And you don’t have to be immersed in the political situation to appreciate the film. It stands on its own as a portrayal of how civil strife in any part of the world affects the daily
life of ordinary people who are unable to lead “ordinary lives.”

By all means see this movie if comes to your town.

Rating: A
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Gangs of New York

The movie begins with the earlier 1847 showdown between Bill’s American-born, anti-immigrant gang, The Nativists, and the Irish Dead Rabbits gang (a Gaelic phrase meaning a violent, angry hulk), led by Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson). The Nativists hated the Irish, who flocked to New York following the potato famine of the 1840’s, fearing the Irish would take jobs away from the “real” Americans. The gangs meet on opposite sides of the square and fight with merciless fury in a superbly shot and edited but unflinchingly bloody hand-to-hand battle reminiscent of the brutality of Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch.”

Priest’s young son, known only as Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio), witnesses his father’s death at the hands of Bill, and as an orphan is sent to a reformatory. Sixteen years later he returns to Five Points seeking revenge. Along the way he meets Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), a sexy redheaded pickpocket who steals men’s jewelry along with their affections. Amsterdam becomes enamored with Jenny while he is endearing himself to Bill. Jenny has a past with Bill, which further intensifies the drama. Later, when Amsterdam’s true identity is revealed, the story reaches a climax.

Scorsese has always been fascinated with the history of this setting, having grown up in nearby Little Italy. The actual site of Five Corners is where five streets came together at what is now the Federal Courthouse, located northeast of City Hall. Ever since he read Herbert Asbury’s 1928 book “Gangs of New York” 30 years ago, Scorsese had wanted to adapt it to the big screen. He enlisted his friend and collaborator, screenwriter Jay Cocks (“The Age of Innocence”) to write the story, which was later turned into a screenplay by Cocks, Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”) and Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count On Me”). The result is an authentic and moving story of class, power, love, redemption and survival in the boiling cauldron of that turbulent time in the city’s history. “Gangs of New York” presents stark class contrasts between the working poor living in squalor in tenements and without adequate winter clothing, and the rich, powerful elite in their fancy attire and lavishly-decorated mansions.

This little-known period of New York’s past, which overlaps with the Civil War years, is known only from old photographs and stories passed down through generations. Since the area no longer exists, Scorsese turned to Italy’s famous Cinecitta studios in Rome, where many of the greatest Italian movies were made, to rebuild his city from scratch. And he has created a memorable film teeming with cinematic energy and dramatic tension. In fact, “Gangs of New York” may be Scorsese’s most ambitious film yet. It has a reported cost of about $100 million. But, at 2 hours and 45 minutes the film feels long because the middle sections of the film drag somewhat. The film has been cut from Scorsese’s original 3 and a half hour version. There is too much focus on the three main characters; perhaps the longer cut would have remedied this. It will be very interesting to see what the DVD looks like if they restore these scenes. The film has Scorsese’s trademark mobile camera, with sweeping movements and overhead shots of the neighborhood action, as well as frenetic 1920’s style Russian montage editing in the fight sequences. One of my favorite scenes is the recreation of the 1863 Civil War Draft Riots, which raged for four days and nights, causing widespread destruction and loss of life. The riots were ignited by the inequity of the draft as anyone could pay $300 and be draft-exempt. The poor became enraged because they could not afford this and rebelled.

As usual, Scorsese elicits great performances from his actors in “Gangs of New York.” Daniel Day-Lewis is terrific as the evil yet funny “Bill the Butcher.” (He won the best actor award from the New York Film Critics Circle and may win the Oscar too). Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz are convincing as well, with apparent sparks of chemistry in their scenes together. The fine supporting cast includes Liam Neeson, John C. Reilly as officer Happy Jack, and Jim Broadbent as William “Boss” Tweed of the corrupt Tammany Hall government. Music plays an important role in the film, which features Irish folk music and African rhythms as well as U2’s “The Hands That Built America.”

Yet for all its merits, the impact of “Gangs of New York” is ultimately undercut by the extreme violence and gory bloodshed throughout the film, making it very difficult to watch at times. This will turn off many viewers and diminish its box office revenue. I suspect that the film will do well initially due to its substantial television advertisements and star power and then possibly level off because the word of mouth will keep it from becoming a hit. I don’t think “Gangs of New York” ranks with Scorsese’s greatest films, “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” and “Goodfellas,” belonging more in the category of “Age of Innocence” and “Last Temptation of Christ.” Nevertheless, if you have a strong stomach and you love great cinema don’t miss it.

Rating: A-
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Chicago

Set in the Roaring 20’s of “Chicago,” this is a story of the struggle for fame and fortune with heroines who will stop at nothing to get it. Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger, adorable as ever) is a struggling married vaudeville singer who is arrested for murdering her boyfriend after he falsely promised her a showbiz break. While in jail she meets the infamous Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) a tall, sexy, singer and dancer, who Roxie idolizes. Velma is in jail for murdering her two-timing husband and sister, formerly one-half of their sister act.

Velma is a media sensation thanks to her fast-talking, media-manipulating lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere, who also sings and dances in the film). Roxie wants Billy to take her case because he has never lost and her husband, Amos, (John C. Reilly) raises just enough cash to get Flynn on board. Flynn concocts an innocent persona for Roxie to create the necessary publicity, dubbing her the “sweetest little jazz killer to ever hit Chicago.” Once Roxie’s star rises, Velma’s falls and the rest of the movie depicts Roxie’s trial and Velma’s struggle to regain her fame and freedom. The fine supporting cast also includes: Queen Latifah as Matron “Mama” Morton, the prison warden, Christine Baranski as the reporter Mary Sunshine, and Lucy Liu in a cameo role.

The essentially silly story, which is one of the weaknesses of “Chicago,” takes a backseat to the elaborately staged, brilliantly choreographed and ever-gaudier song and dance routines. Both Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger show impressive singing and dancing skills, considering they are not professionals. Catherine Zeta-Jones is gorgeous in the short, dark, flapper hairstyle and skimpy costumes, and Zellweger exudes a vulnerable sexuality. They work well together and are fun to watch. The songs are intercut with the story, much the same as in “Cabaret,” Bob Fosse’s 1972 gem, but here taken to the extreme. “Cabaret” had an excellent storyline and superb acting highlighted by the musical numbers at the Kit Kat Club. Fosse was a perfectionist and each shot was carefully composed with inventive camerawork making use of odd angles, and primarily shot with long and medium shots, using the close-ups sparingly and effectively. Fosse painstakingly recreated Weimar Germany and chronicles the rise of the Nazi’s against the backdrop of the decadent nightclub, filming the movie in Germany with an international cast. The result was an authentic, realistic-looking film.

By contrast, “Chicago” has a stylized look and many of the dance numbers are presented as the characters’ fantasies. “Chicago” is essentially a series of song and dance numbers framed around a narrative. The songs are such fun to watch that the movie tends to fall flat in between. As the film progressed, I found myself anticipating the next song and less interested in the plotline.

I am less than enthusiastic about Marshall’s in-your-face TV style of direction and rapid-fire editing which was claustrophobic and irritating at times. The film is visually detailed but he overuses close-ups, diminishing their effect. Often he doesn’t allow the shots to remain onscreen long enough. The effect can be overpowering or dizzying, depending on the viewer.

The most impressive parts of “Chicago” are the magnificent sets, colorful costumes, the splendid choreography and lighting of the dance numbers, and of course the great music by Kander and Ebb, who also teamed up for “Cabaret.” A musical is only as good as its songs and choreography and this is where “Chicago” succeeds the most.

One of my favorite sequences, among many, features the blonde-haired Roxie singing alone on a black stage in a white dress, exuding Monroe-like sexuality. The scene was shot simply, first from a distance, then creeping up closer and ending with her mirrored images all across the screen. It was a subtle and effective scene.

I saw the revival of “Chicago” last year and enjoyed it immensely. The staging was simple, with black costumes and modest sets. I have learned that the original 1975 production was a gaudy vaudevillian spectacle and the movie is truer to the spirit of the original production. Rumor has it that one of the songs from the stage show was cut from the final film and will be available on the DVD. That will be a definite selling point for this release.

At 100 minutes, “Chicago” breezes by and when it’s over you wonder where the time went. This film must be seen in a theater with a good-sized crowd, which shouldn’t be a problem, because the theaters ought to be packed with the audience cheering each song. I look forward to seeing it again after it opens December 27.

Rating: B+
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